With transportation, we must not return to ‘normal’

End subsidies for driving, invest in transit, trains

First of two parts

Welcome back.

Welcome back to the post-pandemic world.  Welcome back to being with family and friends in person and without masks. Welcome back to dining in restaurants, attending a game, seeing a show, taking a friend to lunch.

Welcome back to traffic congestion.

With vaccination rates approaching 70 percent, most of us are returning, perhaps gradually and somewhat tentatively, to many of the routines and activities we had to abandon during the (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime disruption of COVID-19 and its unwelcome family of variants. This is often referred to as a return to normalcy.

Returning to “normal” by definition means returning to the pre-COVID status quo because “normal” in this context implies something that is of long-standing, something so routine that it is taken for granted. Normal is the opposite of innovative. Normal is what’s familiar and comfortable. There’s nothing deliberate about normality; it requires little action on our part.  Normality is often found by taking the path of least resistance; it is fundamentally at the core of our collective comfort zones.

The downsides of normality are embedded in its essential static quality: there can be no growth, no improvement, no innovation if one is wedded to normalcy. Emerson’s admonition that “instead of the gong for dinner let us hear a whistle from the Spartan fife” resounds in this moment as the yearning for post-pandemic normalcy obscures the urgent need to think and act differently on so many fronts, not least how we think about metropolitan and urban mobility. The great and present danger of our time is that we will come out of the pandemic having forgotten the negative externalities of unconstrained auto mobility and learned little or nothing about the benefits of building a more sustainable, inclusive, and cohesive society.

This two-part series is meant to focus attention on how, unless we take decisive action in the short term, our emergence from COVID-19 currently is more likely to build a less inclusive, less sustainable society, squandering the opportunity to use this generationally disruptive pandemic to leverage a historic redirection away from the worst of mid 20th Century transportation and urban design and planning.

The re-emergence of traffic congestion

 Those who want more normalcy in their lives may be comforted by the sight of traffic congestion, a sure sign that people are out of pandemic-imposed confinement and hitting the road for destinations across the region. This is an understandable impulse given what we all have been through, but it is shortsighted. Let’s talk a little bit about traffic congestion, its causes and impacts and the ways to reduce it.

There’s a need for more mobility in metro Boston as the state ends its constraints on a variety of events and activities. Employers in those sectors privileged to have been able to adopt “work from home” protocols during the worst of the pandemic are preparing to bring employees back to the office workplace, either flexibly or full time. Colleges and universities are preparing for full on-campus reopenings in the fall. In general, there’s a lot of pent up demand for people to simply get out and about. As a direct result, traffic congestion is returning, and predictably worsening.

If you think that traffic congestion is merely an annoyance, think again.  Traffic congestion steals your time, wastes your fuel, fouls the air you breathe, and lowers your productivity.  The 2018 Transportation Dividendreport issued by A Better City put it succinctly: “Congestion—the loss of efficient mobility— is the enemy of regional productivity and growth.”  The average metro Boston driver is wasting upwards of 60 hours every year in traffic – that’s basically like spending an entire weekend stuck in traffic.

For those who hate paying the rising price of gasoline, congestion is wasting fuel, so you are consuming many gallons of gasoline every year that literally get you nowhere, which is real money down the drain. Or, more accurately, spewed into the air.  That wasted fuel is converted into carbon emissions, worsening air quality and accelerating climate change. And all that starting and stopping you do as you sit in congestion and approach or leave metro Boston’s inner core communities? That’s producing particulate matter emissions – the stuff that comes not just from the tailpipe but from tire and brake pad friction. Long-term exposure to particulates is a public health hazard, and recent studies (notably one from Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health) demonstrate that it has had a worsening effect on COVID-19 outcomes.

It stands to reason that we all should be aligned in wanting to reduce traffic congestion, but how?  Traffic congestion is caused because of more driving. The only effective, lasting way to reduce traffic congestion is to enact policies that accomplish what the governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation told us must be done: move more people in fewer vehicles. This is achievable if we end the large hidden subsidies we provide to drivers while, at the same time, take action to incentivize people to mode shift from driving to transit and rail.

People don’t think often, or at all, about the significant public and private subsidies that drivers receive without even realizing it. Take free parking as one example.  Who pays for that?  If its parking at a shopping center, then everyone pays because the costs of building and maintaining the parking are passed along from the owner to the businesses and ultimately the consumer. Free or subsidized parking at work? Some of that is taxpayer subsidized; some gets passed along to clients as employers seek to recoup their costs of doing business.

Think that the gas tax pays 100 percent of the cost of keeping up the road and bridge network you drive on every day?  Nope. Not even close.  MassDOT capital expenditures for highways and roads in FY 2019 were a little over $1.4 billion.  That includes direct state investment and local expenditures using Chapter 90 funds. The state gas tax brings in quite a bit less than that, around $830 million in that same year. Of course, most of what we spend on capital projects is paid for with borrowed money (bond funds), and that’s perfectly fine because an all “pay-as-you-go” system would be a dumb thing to do, but let’s not for a minute think that the state gas tax drivers pay in Massachusetts somehow is a one-for-one payment for what they get in return. Far from it. What’s worse, even the resources we devote to maintaining our highway network aren’t enough to prevent chronically poor pavement quality and bridge conditions. And we certainly aren’t asking drivers to pay the real costs of negative externalities like poor air quality and carbon emissions.

Ending or reducing these subsidies ought to go hand-in-hand with investments designed to encourage more people to shift from driving to transit and rail. Mode shift is achievable if we set our minds, policies, and investment decisions toward making it happen. We don’t need, or want, everyone to mode shift.  That would wreak havoc on the transit system.  What we should set as an objective is mode shift of about 10 to 15 percent of current drivers.  That can happen if we commit to doing things like running frequent, all-day transit and rail services and provide reliable “first/last mile” connections to regional rail stations.  The MBTA made some progress recently by establishing hourly commuter rail schedules – now, as the pandemic recedes, those schedules ought to be improved, with 30-45 minute frequencies as the goal. Restoring commuter rail ridership is critical to the T’s bottom line, as it represents a large portion of overall fare revenues.

Ultimately metro Boston needs a comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck approach to reducing traffic congestion. Here are three specific ways our public agencies can respond to the increasingly urgent need to reduce traffic volumes in metro Boston.

First, Massport needs to become an active participant in the effort to encourage many more trips to Logan Airport via transit and Logan Express. For all its talk about sustainability, Massport has done little to contribute to key initiatives like connecting the Red and Blue Lines or connecting the Blue Line to Lynn at Wonderland Station. Yes, Massport has made efforts to support the Silver Line 1 service, but those modest contributions are not enough.  When Massport is actively encouraging people to drive to Logan (as it recently did in a tone deaf Earth Day tweet it later deleted as a result of legitimate public outrage) it is not acting or thinking about how to encourage more trips on transit and Logan Express. Air travel is on the rise and it’s time for the governor and the next mayor of Boston to call on Massport to be more actively engaged in increasing sustainable mobility to Logan.

What can Massport do in the short term?  It can charge an access fee to every vehicle (with appropriate public safety and employee exemptions) entering Logan. It can split the revenues from that fee with the MBTA, for the express purpose of investing in transit mobility to and from Logan.  Massport can accelerate its expansion of Logan Express services in Framingham and other key suburban locations. And it can contribute to the design and engineering costs of the Red Blue connector, which would have a direct benefit to mobility to and from the airport. Here’s the bottom line: Logan Airport is a major contributor to inner core traffic congestion, and this is having a negative impact on air quality and local mobility in communities like East Boston, South Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop, and Revere. It can’t be ignored any longer.

Second, the MBTA needs additional funding enabling it to offer more frequent services all day long.  Frequent all day service is essential if the T is going to effectively respond to emerging post-pandemic flexible work protocols.  In order to provide that service, it needs to purchase more equipment and hire more personnel, especially bus drivers.  The consequent additional operating costs ought to be paid by the Commonwealth without asking the MBTA to turn to fare hikes.  One straightforward way to do this is for the Commonwealth to agree to pay the full cost of paratransit for the T and RTAs.  This would save the MBTA over $100 million annually, enough to get it started on ramping up hiring to provide better all day service frequencies across the system. Paratransit services are important, but there’s no reason why those services, representing a public good, should be borne by the MBTA.  It is collectively the Commonwealth’s responsibility to care for the health and welfare of its citizens, and paratransit is among the suite of services that fall within that framework. This is a long overdue reform.

Third, the governor and Legislature need to implement a road pricing system for metro Boston. Look, let’s be honest with one another. The governor’s own plan to decarbonize the transportation sector assumes that in a few decades state gas tax revenues (and any anticipated carbon tax or TCI revenues) will be zero, because his plan is to have 1 million drivers in electric vehicles by 2030, and every driver of a light duty vehicle in an EV by 2050. It is simply not credible or responsible to propose such an all-EV approach to decarbonization and not take action now to fill the $1 billion-plus gap in transportation funding that, by definition, will occur. Where is that money coming from?  If it is going to come from the transport sector, it needs to come from a fair and transparent road pricing system.

Note that I call for road pricing, not “congestion pricing.”  Congestion pricing is one form of road pricing, but not the only form. What we should be discussing and resolving now is what form or forms of road pricing we want to implement.  Is it regular tolling with a congestion or time-of-day premium?  Is it cordon pricing, which is triggered once a vehicle enters a certain perimeter in the inner metro core? Is it a price associated with the actual miles a person travels on designated roadways? It can be one or more of these, but the discussions and analysis needs to start happening now.

Meet the Author

Traffic congestion is bad for public health, a drag on economic productivity and a degradation of our quality of life. We can no longer wait to take decisive action. The reality is that certain trends that accelerated during the pandemic – especially home delivery of goods and food and the shift to working from home – threaten the future of our cities and our ability to build a more inclusive, cohesive society.  The transportation sector has a vital role to play in halting this drift toward unsustainability and inequality, and I’ll discuss this in more depth in the next article in this series, as I explore the question: can we craft a Sustainable Mobility response to COVOD-19?

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a board member of the advocacy group TransitMatters.